A Traveler's Guide to Icelandic Folk Tales - The Reykjavik Grapevine

A Traveler’s Guide to Icelandic Folk Tales

A Traveler’s Guide to Icelandic Folk Tales

Published September 18, 2009

While traveling around Iceland, tourists will often hear stories of
Icelandic folk legends. In A Traveler’s Guide To Iceland, Jón R.
Hjálmarsson attempts to provide some insight into these tales. To that
end, he invites the reader on an imaginary road trip around the island,
retelling the stories at the places where they are set.

Every folk tale starts with an introduction of the landscape and the
area, as well as some historical facts. The first one denotes how
Hvalfjörður (“Whale fjord”) got its name. Apparently, there was a man
who had denied fathering an elf’s child. Not happy about it, the elf
cast a spell on that man: that he should not only turn into a whale,
but become the most evil of all whales. The man turned into a whale of
great scourge and was said to be responsible for 19 sunken ships in the
fjord. Since he had a red cap on his head, he was called the “Redhead.”
One day, the evil whale killed the two sons of an old and blind pastor
on the shore of Hvalfjörður. The old man was so overwhelmed by the
death of his sons that he decided to kill the whale. And when he met
the whale, he tricked it into following him deeper and deeper into the
fjord to lake Hvalvatn (“Whale Lake”), where the water became
shallower. In the end, the whale died of the strain and even though the
corpse was never found, huge whale bones discovered in that area are
supposed to verify the story. Many traditional stories follow this
magical entrance, amongst them the tale of “The Woman and the seal
skin,” one of Iceland’s most famous folk tales.

The author, who also penned “History of Iceland: From the Settlement to
the Present Day,” gives the tourist a perfect guideline through the
Icelandic folk tales by compiling some of the country’s most beautiful
legends. The idea of setting the legends in the landscapes where they
take place does not only give the reader a deeper understanding of the
tales but also of how the Icelandic nature influenced the tradition of
storytelling in Iceland. Anny Yates’ translation is sometimes a tad
stiff, but solid nevertheless and Bernard Scudder, responsible for the
English verse translation, lives up to his reputation as the dean
translator of Icelandic literature. Eventually, this book is an
excellent read about trolls, elves, hidden people, ghosts, monsters and
beasts and everything that makes Iceland the mystical place it has been
since the age of settlement.

  • Jón R. Hjálmarsson
  • English translation by Anna Yates
  • English verse translation by Bernhard Scudder
  • Published by Forlagið, originally by Almenna bókafélagið

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